Indiana Bishop Mike Coyner sent this out today. It discusses the recent decision of the GCFA regarding spousal benefits and the bishops’ statements about Bishop Talbert.
“It’s Not Just About Sex”
Did my title get your attention? Two decisions happened this week in our United Methodist Church which at first might seem to be about sexuality and homosexuality, but in fact both decisions are about the larger issues of justice and covenant.
First, the Board of Directors of GCFA (the General Council on Finance and Administration, of which I am president) approved a recommendation from our personnel committee to extend health-insurance benefits for all employees of general church agencies for “spouses” to include those persons who are legally married or in legal civil unions. The issue is that some states (13 to date) have legalized either “gay marriages” or “civil unions” and so GCFA believes that the “spouses” of such partnerships have to be treated equally to the married spouses in heterosexual couples. To refuse such equal coverage, we believe, would put our denomination at risk for lawsuits alleging discrimination. The GCFA decision was to approve that extension, while also requesting the Judicial Council of our UMC to give us a declaratory ruling on whether such an extension is allowed by our Book of Discipline. (Our GCFA action applies only to employees of the general agencies of the UMC and does not directly impact Annual Conferences or local congregations).
Of course many people are saying this decision means GCFA is in some way approving of gay marriages, but that is really not the issue. The issue is about justice and fair treatment under the laws of the states which have legalized these partnerships. It is not an easy issue, and in fact our Book of Discipline offers differing perspectives — reminding us that all persons, including gay and lesbian persons, are of “sacred worth” and calling us to be in ministry to and with all persons. But at the same time our BOD in its Social Principles states that we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider it incompatible with Christian teaching. All of us United Methodists are left to struggle with how we treat all people fairly without violating our standards. So the GCFA decision leaned toward the fairness issue and was not really about sexuality.
A second decision has also captured attention. The Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops (I am not currently a member of the Executive Committee) has voted to ask retired Bishop Melvin Talbert NOT to participate in a “gay marriage” in Alabama this weekend. Gay marriage is not legal in Alabama, and our Book of Discipline prohibits United Methodist clergy from officiating at gay weddings or services which celebrate a homosexual union. Bishop Talbert believes our Discipline is wrong on this issue, and he has announced his intention to officiate in the “wedding” of two men in Alabama who have already been legally married in another state. The resident Bishop of Alabama has asked Bishop Talbert not to do so, and now the Executive Committee of our Council of Bishops has also asked him not to do so.
That decision, it seems to me, is also not about sexuality or homosexuality. It is a decision about our covenant together as United Methodists and our covenant as bishops of the church. I don’t know whether or not Bishop Talbert will obey that decision, and there is a process for any clergy (including bishops) to be charged with violating our Discipline if they do so. Many other clergy have threatened to participate in such gay weddings or civil unions as a protest, but it would be a very rare thing for a bishop to deliberately violate both the Discipline and the authority of another bishop (let alone disobey the Council of Bishops speaking through its Executive Committee). Our full Council of Bishops meets next month, and I already anticipate it will be a difficult meeting. Please pray for us.
Both decisions this week, it seems to me, have little to do with sexuality and homosexuality, but they have a lot to do with the meaning of “church” and “covenant” and “order.” My own personal stance is that all of us are free to disagree with one another or with our Book of Discipline, but we are called to live together in a covenant of discipline and respect. When we disagree we are to participate in Christian conferencing with one another where our stance must be “I could be wrong on this issue, so let’s talk and pray together to seek God’s guidance.”
A bishop of the church, whether active or retired, has a special responsibility to teach the faith, to guard the church, and to order the administration and discipline of the church. Those are some of the promises we make when we are elected and consecrated as bishops. Likewise, every ordained Elder in the church is ordained to word, sacrament, and order. I take those ordination and consecration vows very seriously, and I don’t think we can be “church” together without a commitment to such order.
So, we will have to see what is the long-term result of decisions like the ones this week. I pray that we will be continue to be a United Methodist Church in more than name, but also in spirit. Perhaps we should be guided by Galatians 5:13 which says: “My friends, you were chosen to be free. So don’t use your freedom as an excuse to do anything you want. Use it as an opportunity to serve each other with love.”